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TV’s never-ending season

Traditional cycles fall in modern era

“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” the saying goes. But what happens when the opposite occurs — when the things we like, the things we’re accustomed to missing before rediscovering them, never, ever go away?

Television was built around seasons. Programs premiered during the fall (to help sell new cars), as did the football season. The summer brought reruns to catch up on what we missed. The holidays meant specials — musical/variety, Charlie Brown, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The new year was ushered in with bowl games, and so on.

Today, the unquenchable appetite for more of everything has long since eradicated these traditional cycles. Is it any wonder, then, that things we once counted on to be special — the big award shows, the Olympics, new-season TV premieres — are in danger of fatigue. When everything’s so readily and constantly available, we’re experiencing a decided lack of “specialness,” as David Byrne put it in the movie “True Stories.”

Take pro football, the most reliable ratings draw on television. No longer simply content to dominate five months of the calendar, the NFL is lobbying cable operators to carry a dedicated year-round network. Ditto for the Olympics, which grew in popularity in part because nobody needed to care about swimming or figure skating during the years in between the alternating Summer and Winter Games.

In terms of awards, the Emmys once could be counted upon to kick off the new TV season, following an extended stretch of reruns. In essence, that rang the post-Labor Day dinner bell reminding us that our favorite shows and a passel of newcomers were about to appear.

By contrast, this year’s Emmys actually had to shift the broadcast’s date in order to avoid colliding with another made-for-TV awards presentation on MTV. And in this age of year-round original programming, the “fall season” has become an arbitrary construct.

Indeed, it’s now an endless season, with more than 50 new series premiering on broadcast and cable during the not-long-ago fallow stretch between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Moreover, that list doesn’t include ballyhooed returning shows such as last year’s Emmy-winning drama “Mad Men,” which returns in mid-August and will be seven weeks into its third season by the time the awards air.

The real mystery is why we insist on expressing shock and dismay when these “events” seldom live up to their event status. Frankly, the marvel isn’t that Oscar ratings have dwindled, but that they remain as high as they do after we’ve seen Kate Winslet or the “Slumdog Millionaire” gang deliver versions of the same thank-you speech at a handful of televised ceremonies.

Hell, even movies now have their own TV series — not spinoffs, mind you, but in the case of “Twilight: New Moon,” a weekly promotional drumbeat on ReelzChannel that will count down from early August until the sequel’s premiere in November.

These changes are irreversible, and nothing can squeeze the genie back in the bottle. Nor should we aspire to that, since having more choices is certainly welcome.

By the same token, it’s unfair to label these franchises “failures” when they fall short of benchmarks established in years past, when the playing field was so different. The Oscars can still attract close to 40 million viewers and the Olympics can capture the public’s imagination, but in a no-gimme environment that’s a genuine accomplishment — one that defies the steady tug of gravity.

The main point here is that we have a tendency to look at declining ratings and leap to the false assumption that we collectively like things such as network TV or college football less than we once did, or that the public is suddenly rejecting the Emmys or Oscars.

The truth is far more nuanced than that. Sure, plenty of us still eagerly anticipate hearing the crack of the bat in October or those televised red-carpet walks that now start in December and don’t end until March. But we’d probably appreciate them a lot more if only they’d give us a chance to catch our breath and miss them for awhile.

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